I have been thinking a lot about military mistakes lately.
This is partly triggered by the series of Iraq-related ten-year anniversaries, which will lead us to replay through our rear-view mirror the unraveling of Phase IV operations in Iraq over the coming years.
But it is even more triggered by some unrelated reading and "active learning" exercises I am doing with my Duke students. A few weeks ago, my students did a virtual staff ride of Operation Anaconda, courtesy of Tom Donnelly and the fine team at the Marilyn Ware Center at AEI. It was an extraordinary experience for the students, who prepared to role-play different key figures in the battle. As is usually the case with such staff rides, a fair bit of time is spent on dissecting what went wrong, and the students usually turn in some of their finest work in role-playing someone explaining/excusing his/her own character's errors whilst blaming someone else.
What made this event extra special, however, was the participation of several Special Operations Force representatives from Ft. Bragg, two of whom had actually been in the battle we were studying. Their perspective was invaluable, and their contributions to the discussion had a profound effect on my students. Yet even they would admit that there were quite a number of things that went poorly for the U.S.-led coalition in that battle, and not all of them can be dismissed as "bad luck."
Similarly, a different group of students are preparing for an actual staff ride to Gettysburg later this week, and that of course is one of the most famous of mistake-riddled battles in American history.
And, for good measure, I have started to read Army at Dawn, the first volume in Rick Atkinson's magisterial trilogy about World War II. This volume covers the U.S-British invasion of North Africa, and so far in my reading it is a cavalcade of errors and bone-headed decisions by the U.S. and especially the British commanders.
The costs of the mistakes are hard to calculate precisely. Arguably, the mistakes at Gettysburg resulted in tens of thousands of casualties (dead and wounded) that might otherwise have been avoided. The casualties-by-mistake-tally for Operation Torch probably is in the thousands. Anaconda produced roughly 100 dead and wounded on the U.S. side, so the casualties-by-mistake number would be some fraction of that.
All of these are a grim reminder that in war mistakes happen and, when they do, people pay for those mistakes with their lives. However, as the daily headlines out of Syria demonstrate, not-intervening can also produce a grim tally of death and destruction.
This is the tragedy of power, one that must surely gnaw at the Obama administration. They know that to act is to risk painful consequences, but they are also discovering that to not act is also producing painful consequences. Does there come a point when the bigger military mistake is not acting?
Pool Photo/Getty Images
Reading this piece analyzing Karzai's apparently self-defeating -- indubitably, American-mission-threatening -- behavior reminded me of an interaction I once had with him.
The background to the story was a dispute between the Bush Administration, which was interested in pursuing aerial spraying to eradicate the poppy fields supplying the drug trade and the Karzai Administration, which claimed to support the goal of stopping the drug trade but just opposed the idea of aerial spraying.
My theory at the time was that Karzai actually opposed eradication and would have complained regardless of the method. At the time, this reminded me of a scene from a favorite childhood book of mine, Cheaper by the Dozen. In the book, as I remember it, the mother was objecting to the locus of the spanking applied by the father: "Not the seat of pants, dear. Not there." But when he shifted to apply the spanking elsewhere, he got the same objection: "Not the top of the head, dear. Not there." Exasperated, the father bellowed, "Where can I spank him?" The reply was classic, "I don't know where, but not there, dear. Not there."
Karzai claimed that was not the case, and when we pressed him for an explanation, he gave one that none of us had anticipated. He said we should do truck-based spraying, not aerial spraying, because that way the Afghan farmers would be able to shoot at the trucks in defense of their fields. As I recall, the conversation went something like this....
"Wouldn't that block the spraying?"
"Not really. You could shoot back and the trucks would finish the job."
"But why not just do the aerial spraying and be done with it? It is safer and more efficient."
"Because the Afghan people will resent it so much more if they can't shoot back. They won't like losing the crops either way, but they will learn to live with it if they had a chance to shoot back while you were doing it. If you just do it from the air, they will feel powerless and the resentment will grow."
It was not at all how we thought about the problem and perhaps it was not the real reason anyway. Perhaps Karzai calculated that the risks of ground-spraying would be enough for us to be deterred from proceeding.
But his explanation has always stuck with me, and it has a certain perverse logic to it. It certainly seems to me like Karzai is "taking pot-shots at the trucks," as it were. Maybe there is an Afghan logic to it.
Phil Goodwin/Getty Images
The Washington Post has run a few excerpts from Rajiv Chandrasekaran's latest book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan. It contains such shockers as the revelation that inter-service rivalry at the Pentagon led to bureaucratically sub-rational outcomes. As Captain Renault said to Rick, "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!"
Rajiv gets a few things right. He claims that "U.S. commanders thought that managing the NATO alliance was more important than winning the war." A lot of the senior brass seems never to have fully internalized the strategic importance of the war in Afghanistan, despite two presidents insisting that it was a vital American national security interest. When Bush and Obama can agree on something, you have to at least consider they may be right.
But much of the book dwells on interagency rivalry in Washington during the early months of the Obama administration, when I served as a staffer on the NSC. Here, Chandrasekaran embellishes, dramatizes, and exaggerates until the story is no longer recognizable.
In Chandrasekaran's telling, there was an epic rivalry between the State Department's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, and the NSC's special coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Doug Lute. I worked for Lute during some of the period covered by Chandrasekaran's story.
There was plainly a rivalry of sorts, but Chandrasekaran blows it out of all proportion and neglects obvious historical and institutional factors at play. The NSC and the State Department have been rivals since the NSC was created in 1947, and the rivalry endures across policy issues and regardless of personalities. Add to the standard institutional competition the fact that the Obama administration decided to have two separate 'special' leads for Af-Pak policy, one at State and one at NSC, and it is unsurprising that the two offices clashed over their confusing, overlapping and unclear roles. That's the natural consequence of the president's poor managerial decisions and the administration's neglect of clear institutional organization.
Instead of recognizing these obvious, if un-dramatic, facts, Chandrasekaran claims that the rivalry between Lute and Holbrooke cost the United States the opportunity to reach a peace deal with the Taliban in 2009-10. He claims that "The Obama White House failed to aggressively explore negotiations to end the war when it had the most boots on the battlefield," in part because of the rivalry. The claim is false. No such peace deal was within reach. Chandrasekaran even concedes that "It was not clear that [the Taliban's] leader, the reclusive Mullah Mohammed Omar, wanted to talk" to the United States. Indeed, despite Lute and Holbrooke's differences, they agreed on the fundamental policy of pursuing talks to end the war and the Obama administration has, however falteringly, made some progress towards that goal.
But Chandrasekaran goes so far as to say that "[National Security Advisor James] Jones and Lute hated the thought of Holbrooke basking in the spotlight as he did after peace in the Balkans." The accusation that two professional military men would let a personality conflict obstruct the president's ability to wage and win a war is petty, unfounded and worthy of the National Enquirer, not the Washington Post.
In fact, Lute went out of his way to re-engineer the interagency process and make a great display of co-chairing a new higher-level interagency forum with Holbrooke, something neither Chandrasekaran nor Woodward picked up on in their respective books. Lute and Holbrooke kept their disagreements out of the public eye, as professionals are supposed to do.
Lute and Holbrooke clashed, but that's what bureaucrats do, especially when there are real issues at stake that they disagree about. Chandrasekaran relates that Lute believed that Holbrooke "had ruined his relationships with Karzai, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul and officials in the Pakistani government." That's essentially true; I don't know many who would dispute that account. Holbrooke's histrionics and his belief that the U.S. should have tilted the playing field in the 2009 Afghan presidential election were responsible for much of the damage to U.S.-Afghan relations in the early years of the Obama administration.
I have always admired what Lute was able to accomplish during the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations. He provided crucial continuity during the first war-time presidential transition since 1968. He cooperated with the incoming administration as a foreign policy professional, embodying the non-partisan ethos that the community used to stand for. And, when the Obama team inexplicably demoted his position, he accepted it with a rare humility not often found among bureaucrats. A lesser man would have resigned to nurse his wounded pride. I like to think that he stayed because he believed, rightly, that the job was too important to put his ego first.
That doesn't mean Lute's record is flawless. I have been a frequent critic of the Obama administration's record on Afghanistan, some of which inevitably must reflect on Lute as the administration's longest-serving point-man on Afghan policy. But that is an honest disagreement on policy, the sort of thing that should drive public debate. Chandrasekaran may sell books with his tabloid accusations, but history will set the record straight.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Whatever your perspective about counterinsurgency (COIN), there is one position that is clearly wrong: the view that debate about COIN is not important, necessary, or productive, as retired Army colonel Robert Killebrew recently suggested over at the Best Defense. Beyond advancing the peculiar idea that a contentious issue in American foreign policy merits no further discussion, Killebrew has it exactly backwards: The debate over COIN is at an important turning point, and is in many ways just getting started. Scholars and strategic thinkers are increasingly engaging the ideas of counterinsurgency in new and sophisticated ways. This development should hearten supporters of the intellectual enterprise generally ,as well as those who embrace the notion that better thinking can lead to better policy.
Last week the Robert S. Strauss Center at the University of Texas (UT) sponsored a workshop, Reassessing Counterinsurgency, together with partners from King's College London and the University of Queensland. The workshop brought together scholars and practitioners to tackle the subject of counterinsurgency in critically new ways. It included COIN's most articulate advocates and critics, policy experts, strategic analysts, historians, and political scientists from the U.S., Britain, and beyond who are doing path-breaking new work on the subject.
At least one thing became clear over a day and a half of refreshingly nuanced discussion. Despite years of attention in the Beltway, the counterinsurgency debate remains remarkably muddled. Terms are still frustratingly ill-defined. Distinctions between tactical advice and strategic direction are lost in the jumble, as larger disagreements over policy in Iraq and Afghanistan are tangled into the discussion about COIN. Scholars bristle at what they see as the intellectual shallowness and lack of theoretical rigor of counterinsurgency ideas, while policy hands and some military officers have no patience for what they perceive as the academy's tendency to suffer from analysis paralysis.
The confused mishmash notwithstanding, the UT workshop surfaced a few recurring themes. As the army is in the midst of revising their counterinsurgency manual, there are at least four key sets of questions that doctrine writers might consider, and that should help shape the scholarly research agenda and the next phase of the debate:
1. Are We Speaking the Same Language?
If the first step in developing good theory is defining terms, then there is much work still to be done in counterinsurgency. There is a growing consensus that the term itself is ambiguous, misused, and has experienced "conceptual stretching." As one workshop participant has written, "in a remarkably short period of time, counterinsurgency has become the new Kuhnian paradigm, or normal science, for non-kinetic (or limited kinetic) warfare. However it is far from obvious that this framework truly captures the dynamics that are occurring in an increasingly complex and interconnected world."
Is "counterinsurgency" merely one type of what scholar Harry Eckstein referred to as "internal war"? If so, how should we understand its features as compared to other manifestations of internal war, such as civil war and revolutions? Taking one step further back, is war divisible into such classifications, or, instead, as Clausewitz would have it, always a chameleon? This most fundamental conceptual question -- how (or whether) to subdivide conflict analytically and how counterinsurgency fits into a broader typology -- has received surprisingly little attention in the debate over COIN.
There are other important, and largely unanswered, questions. What are the differences between "first-party COIN" -- that conducted by a state within its own territory -- and "third-party COIN" conducted by an intervening outside power? Is there a difference between "big COIN," or large-scale state-building, and the more modest ambitions of "little COIN," focused on small-scale assistance? If these different types of COIN are significantly dissimilar propositions, should they be called the same thing? The gaps in the theoretical and scholarly literature are legion, and they can only be filled by continued research, better evidence, thinking, and yes, debate.
2. Is Field Manual 3-24 COIN? Is COIN Field Manual 3-24?
These discussions also raise the important question of how to situate the Army's Field Manual (FM) 3-24, published in December 2006, in the broader literature on COIN. In disputes over counterinsurgency, FM 3-24 and COIN are frequently conflated. Yet their precise relationship remains unclear. Did FM 3-24 represent the state of the art in thinking on counterinsurgency, or was it, as some suggest, merely a military doctrinal manual, a small slice of a larger intellectual pie focused on tactical advice to soldiers and the conflict in Iraq? According to this view, it would be unjust to impugn counterinsurgency more broadly based on perceived deficiencies in the manual, and those who take issue with COIN might best participate in the manual's revision, rather than throw rocks from the sidelines.
Yet if FM 3-24 was just a doctrinal manual, it was also undeniably unique in many ways. It was certainly the first military doctrine to be unveiled with such fanfare, including appearances by the drafting team in various media outlets to herald the manual's arrival. One could be forgiven for seeing a larger enterprise in a University of Chicago edition, which featured an introduction that seems to range far beyond the document's nominal, tactical, remit. FM 3-24 arguably played an important role in the bureaucratic and domestic politics associated with the decision to surge in Iraq, and it seems hard to dispute that various personalities and Washington think tanks linked to the document played a major role in U.S. policy deliberations over both Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a truism that military doctrine is not strategy. But what if, in this case, a doctrine became a strategy, as critics have argued?
As FM 3-24 is revised, it seems a good moment to have a larger debate about the interactive effects of doctrine and strategy, real or prospective. Is COIN per se the right manual, or should it be written as part of a broader document that addresses other forms of internal conflict? Does the mere existence of a manual inevitably create a "moral hazard" effect, lulling policymakers into a false confidence about what is possible? Might it provide incentives for policymakers and strategists to "name" a conflict according to the manuals that are available, rather than the facts on the ground? To what extent should a doctrinal manual take account of the risk of its misuse?
3. History and Statecraft
Counterinsurgency also raises critically important questions about the uses of history. The basis of counterinsurgency is a set of particular historical cases, most notably the British in Malaya, the French in Algeria, and the U.S. in Vietnam, and to a lesser extent the British experience in Northern Ireland and imperial policing operations in the U.K.'s former dominions. These cases raise two different, but related questions: 1. What happened?; and 2. How do we use what happened? Despite the rather blithe use of these historical analogies in many discussions about COIN, both of these questions are highly contested by scholars.
While Malaya is widely considered the perfect case study of counterinsurgency principles (at least as articulated in FM 3-24), a new generation of scholars, such as British historian Karl Hack, has begun to challenge popular understandings of what happened there, including the much discussed "hearts and minds" approach. Scholars are also examining the other case studies of COIN in critical ways and developing new, much more nuanced, understandings of those histories.
But the second part of the question is how we use those cases, and this connects to a larger and long-standing debate about the uses of history for policymaking. At Harvard, the late Ernest May and Richard Neustadt spent decades examining the uses of history and warning against the perils of simplistic historical analogies in developing and/or justifying policy. Francis J. Gavin and James Steinberg recently offered a wise and thoughtful refresher on this subject, reminding us that history's "lessons" can be as often misleading as helpful.
But this question has received surprisingly little attention in the COIN debate. Despite the certainty with which COIN advocates have offered historical models, it is not at all obvious or well demonstrated that the classic case studies of COIN are applicable to modern American warfare. Imagine that we conducted the very simple exercise, suggested by May and Neustadt, to test the applicability of an historical analogy: Divide a sheet of paper in half, and on the left side write down the similarities between Iraq and, say, Malaya. On the right side, write down the differences. Would the left side really be more robust than the right? And even if the relevance of historical cases seems plausible at first blush, surely the evidentiary burden lies with those who argue for the use of the analogy. In the field of counterinsurgency, there has been surprisingly little deep scholarship that would even begin to meet this burden.
4. What Really Happened in Iraq, and Why? What of COIN in Afghanistan?
Inextricably woven into the previous three sets of questions is the U.S. experience in Iraq during and after the Surge, which, for some, offers the most recent, and most potent, case study in successful COIN. According to this view, COIN, as described by FM 3-24, was taken to Iraq in 2007, implemented there, and violence declined. What better evidence of COIN's utility than our own experience but a few years ago?
But there are serious and unresolved questions about what really happened in Iraq, and both sides of the argument have suffered from an absence of evidence. It has been hard to prove that the Surge (and its alleged accompanying COIN techniques) worked, but also hard to demonstrate that it did not, and both sides have plausible, but unproven, explanations for the observed outcomes. In an upcoming article in International Security, Stephen Biddle, Jeffrey Friedman, and Jacob Shapiro use recently declassified data on violence to explore various competing arguments about the Surge. Without spoiling the surprise, their answer is that the story is complicated, and reveals the limits of several sides of the argument.
The Iraq question leads us irretrievably to a discussion about how counterinsurgency ideas featured in later policy -- and results -- in Afghanistan. Here there are also important, unanswered questions that scholars must tackle in coming years. Was the problem that COIN was never fully implemented in Afghanistan, as some argue? Or did the U.S. try, and fail, at counterinsurgency there, as others would have it? Beyond the facts on the ground there is also an important, and insufficiently understood, history of how interpretations of the Iraq experience affected the thinking of military and civilian senior leaders in policy on Afghanistan, for good or for ill.
If indeed COL Killebrew is right that counterinsurgency is here to stay, then so long as we are sending young men and women into danger to undertake such conflicts, it is imperative that we get it right, or as right as we can. We are obligated not to sit back, be quiet, and declare the debate over, but instead work diligently to fill the serious intellectual gaps in this fascinating and critical subject that has had such a profound impact on American policy and real lives on the battlefield.
Read more about the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership here.
Critics of the civilian-nuclear deal between the United States and India -- proposed in 2005 and ratified in 2008 -- have more recently charged that its supporters oversold the broader benefits of Indo-U.S. strategic partnership. Their critique has been given unearned momentum by the Indian parliament, which passed nuclear liability legislation that does not meet international standards, effectively making it impossible for U.S. companies to build civilian-nuclear plants in India. Critics have also been emboldened by a certain drift in U.S.-India relations since 2009 -- for which both sides bear responsibility -- and by India's own lackluster economic performance, which diminishes its attractiveness as the pivotal U.S. partner in 21st century Asia. But these developments do not mean the relationship was oversold. The more accurate charge is that it has not yet been fully consummated.
The Obama administration sent decidedly mixed messages to New Delhi upon taking office in 2009. Bush administration officials had argued convincingly that a shared appreciation for managing the balance of power in Asia was at the core of the U.S.-India entente -- music to the ears of leaders in a country that has still not recovered from the psychological scars of a war with China in 1962. However, early in their tenure, senior Obama administration officials reportedly told Indian counterparts that the United States was no longer "doing balance of power in Asia," while senior U.S. officials, including the president and secretary of state, gave credence for a time to the notion of a Sino-American "G-2" condominium in Asian and global affairs.
This unnerved Indian officials who believed Washington had chosen New Delhi -- not Beijing -- as its privileged partner in rising Asia. Spurned Indian officials fell back on old non-alignment instincts and began speaking of "triangulating" between the United States and China. But events happily changed the discourse: China's militant assertiveness in 2010-11 reminded officials in Washington and across Asia of the growing danger posed by budding Chinese power. President Obama's self-declared "pivot" to Asia in 2011 moved the United States much closer to the Indian position of sustaining a regional equilibrium not tilted in China's direction -- a project of such immensity that India cannot achieve it absent close alignment, if not alliance, with the United States. Nonetheless, the early damage to a U.S.-India relationship whose central logic is rooted in the balance of power caused mistrust that still lingers.
More recently, Indians have been disappointed that the United States, after reassuring them for a decade that U.S. forces would finish the job they started in Afghanistan, will withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan through 2014. Beyond its intrinsic importance, Afghanistan was in fact a key test of the proposition that the United States, as a new strategic partner, could help India solve its toughest security challenge: the propensity of its neighbors to export terrorism into India, with state support. The Taliban's eventual return to control in at least parts of Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan's virulently anti-Indian security services as NATO forces draw down, will undermine Indian security in tangible ways. For many Indians, the United States' lack of staying power reconfirms old suspicions about American unreliability. It reinforces the conviction that India may have more to gain from collaborating with Russia and Iran to support Afghan groups committed to the Taliban's defeat than from relying on (and working with) the United States to do the job.
Americans, in turn, have been disappointed by India's apparent willingness, for a time, to risk its U.S. relationship over energy trade with Iran. The good news is that India has moved to reduce oil and gas imports from Iran, earning New Delhi a waiver from U.S. third-party sanctions set to take effect next month. This is particularly significant in light of India's energy-import dependence and its previous reliance on Iran as a top supplier. But American officials have spent precious time and energy over the course of several years urging India to cut back on its Iran trade -- time and energy that would have been better spent forging ahead on a wider agenda for Indo-U.S. cooperation, were it not for Indian reluctance to take American appeals to heart. New Delhi would have benefited more from early movement on this issue, rather than making a show of standing up to the United States even as India, out of concern for its own interests, systematically reduced its dependence on Iranian energy supplies.
Americans excited about the rise to great-power status of the world's largest democracy have also questioned how India's passivity toward the Arab uprisings has served Indian interests, much less prospects for partnership with both Washington and reformist Arab regimes. While India's election commission did assist in organizing Egypt's first democratic elections, New Delhi has been seriously behind the curve in Libya, Egypt, and Syria (though it has not blocked U.N. Security Council actions on the latter). It is Indian interests that suffer from such passivity, in the form of cool relations with post-revolutionary countries strategically positioned on its western doorstep. Such passivity has undermined the case, not just in Washington but internationally, that India is ready to provide global public goods and assume genuine responsibilities beyond its borders as a permanent member of the Security Council.
Nonetheless, over the past three years India and the United States have made quiet progress in consolidating their new relationship. India is the world's largest arms importer, and the United States is at the top of its list of defense suppliers -- notwithstanding American disappointment that India did not choose a U.S. fifth-generation fighter jet as part of its ongoing military modernization. Indian armed forces exercise more with U.S. counterparts than those from any other country -- a remarkable development for two countries that were on opposite sides of the Cold War divide. Intelligence-sharing is at historic highs; Washington and New Delhi cooperate more actively on counter-terrorism than ever before. The two countries are also more closely aligned on Pakistan as a result of the degeneration of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance over the previous three years. Perhaps most importantly, India and post-pivot America see eye-to-eye on the immense strategic challenge posed by China's ascendance; the Indo-American dialogue on East Asian security has been richly rewarding for both sides.
The hard truth is that Indo-U.S. relations would be better were India and the United States each doing better. India was a most attractive partner when it was growing at near-double digit rates annually, putting it on track to emerge as the world's largest economy before 2050. For many Americans today, India is a less attractive partner as economic growth slumps, the government stalls on key reforms necessary to unlock the economy's vast potential, populism trumps effective policymaking, and politicians seem unable to break partisan gridlock to govern effectively. Funnily enough, Indians could say exactly the same thing about America under President Obama.
In truth much as I searched, I have found that the Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics actually has no analogue in foreign policy. Regardless, it is a good way to describe Obama's foreign policy doctrine. Call it the Uncertainty Doctrine.
Businesspeople and economists make a good case that the uncertainty of Obama's domestic policies has slowed the economic recovery. The private sector does not know when and for what they will next be taxed or regulated, what the new health care law visited upon them means for the economy. The anxiety causes a freeze in economic growth.
So too with Obama's uncertainty foreign policy doctrine. Allies and adversaries have no idea what we will do next and are acting accordingly.
Obama announced a troop surge in Afghanistan and then immediately a pull out date. Should our allies stick with us as we take out just enough bad guys to make the Taliban more vengeful when they return? Or instead should Kabul just make deals with the Taliban? An Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable but so is Israel removing one from the hands of Iran. Assad must go, but we will not do anything to make that happen. On the other hand maybe its best if he just stayed -- easier to work with than the alternative.
China was a partner in global action problems -- perhaps even a G2 was in the offing! Together we would work on climate change, nonproliferation, who knows what else? Now the United States needs to pivot to Asia to keep China in check.
Here is another part of the uncertainty doctrine that must leave Europeans and Middle Easterners scratching their heads: The United States is pivoting to Asia (under fiscal constraint) but not abandoning its allies in Europe or the Middle East.
The pivot, we tell the Chinese, is not about them. But then Manila and Tokyo ask: "What do you mean the pivot isn't about China. The Chinese are unwelcome visitors into our waters at least once a week!"
Oh, and we have new battle plan called "Air Sea Battle" that again is not about China. However, it is meant to operate in "anti-access" environments -- those in which enemies have many missiles, submarines, and cyber warfare capabilities. Sounds like China. We will be able to operate again in those environments once the plan is executed, but we will not execute it because we are cutting the defense budget, so China should worry a bit but not too much. Our allies should have just a little dose of reassurance to go along with their fears.
India is a strategic partner whom we would like to join us in checking (or not checking?) China but we are going to leave Afghanistan for India to fight over with its archrival Pakistan.
I think the point is made. Just as uncertainty in economic policy can make an economy sputter, so too has Obama's uncertainty doctrine made the world a more dangerous place. With no one else to do the chores, the United States must lead with certainty. The rest of the world may complain about our arrogance, but that is better than complaining about utter chaos.
Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images
BRUSSELS – For supporters of the war in Afghanistan, recent news has been depressing. Here in Brussels at NATO headquarters, where I've been observing the so-called "jumbo" ministerial of NATO defense and foreign ministers, officials were forced to address the Haqqani network's brazen attacks in several Afghan cities, including Kabul, over the weekend, as well as photographs published by the Los Angeles Times of U.S. Army soldiers posing with the body parts of suicide bombers in 2010.
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images
In my last post, I sketched out the strategic case for significantly deepening U.S.-Kurdish ties. While such a paradigm shift may take some time, a good start can be made simply by clearing out the underbrush of counter-productive policies that needlessly hinder our relations with the Kurds. During this week's visit to Washington by President Masoud Barzani, head of Iraq's Kurdistan regional government, the Obama administration would be well-served by focusing on several practical deliverables:
Stop Treating the Kurds as Terrorists. Incredibly, under existing immigration law, members of Iraq's two main Kurdish parties -- Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) -- are classified as terrorists when seeking visas to enter the United States. As modified after 9/11, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) uses a definition of terrorism so broad that virtually any resistance group that in the past engaged in armed conflict against its government is considered a so-called "Tier III" terrorist organization. Membership in such a group is automatic grounds for denial of admission to the U.S., treatment that extends to the member's family as well.
That's right: The KDP and PUK for years worked hand-in-glove with the United States to bring down the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein. After 2003, they served as America's most faithful allies in efforts to stabilize Iraq. And for all their trouble fighting alongside U.S. forces they got . . . well, they got labeled as terrorists, of course. As Mr. Bumble famously says in Oliver Twist, "If the law supposes that . . . [then] the law is an ass -- an idiot."
In 2009, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary of Homeland Security Napolitano exercised their discretionary authority to exempt members of the KDP and PUK from the INA's terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds on a case-by-case basis -- provided they were able to satisfy officials at State and DHS that they met six criteria meant to show they were not in fact terrorists and posed no danger to U.S. security. Needless to say, the process of qualifying for the exemption is frequently long, cumbersome and -- let's be frank -- humiliating for people who threw their lot in completely with America, and often risked life and limb to help it succeed. And even with the exemption possibility, the slanderous classification of the KDP and PUK as terrorist organizations remains, an undeserving and gratuitous insult to a proud people that have gone out of their way to align themselves openly with Washington -- an all-too-rare occurrence in a Middle East where anti-Americanism is, sad to say, always in fashion.
Small consolation for the Kurds, perhaps, that the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela were also once ensnared by the INA's overly-broad sweep. Thankfully, Congress acted in 2008 to pass a law that explicitly removed the ANC from treatment as a terrorist organization under the INA. Similar legislative relief has been provided to other groups who fought repressive regimes. Now, no less should be done for the Kurds. As has so often been the case when it comes to doing the right thing in matters of national security, Senator Joseph Lieberman is leading the way, crafting a possible fix to the Kurds' outrageous dilemma. The Obama administration is signaling that it will support Lieberman's effort and it should do so, wholeheartedly. A statement to that effect by President Obama when he meets Barzani would go a long way. Even better if the president in the meantime issued a directive to State and DHS instructing them to cease considering the KDP and PUK as terrorist organizations for purposes of issuing visas.
Allow Visas to be Issued From Erbil. A related problem is that the U.S. Consulate in Kurdistan is not yet issuing visas. Instead, Kurds wishing to visit the United States must either take their chances by going to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad (by all accounts, a nightmarish experience due to security precautions), or travel abroad to an American post in the Gulf or Turkey. On top of the hurdles already posed by the INA's restrictions, the additional time, expense, and hassle this process adds can quickly become prohibitive. The Obama administration should act soon to correct the situation, and fast-track a presidential decision to issue visas from Erbil.
SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images
It's been an alarming few weeks for the Afghan war: American servicemembers videotaped disrespecting Afghan corpses, coalition forces assassinated by Afghan National Security Forces, American servicemembers burning Qurans provoking deadly Afghan riots, an American shamefully killing Afghan civilians, and President Karzai demanding Coalition forces be confined to bases. Given all these events, Americans can be forgiven for doubting we are making any progress in the war effort, or that the mission in Afghanistan is worth what we are paying for it in lives, effort, and money.
Which makes it all the more meritorious that President Obama and his national security team have not used these events to rush for the exits. It is easy to imagine the president reprising his Iraq end game: summoning a stentorian tone and explaining that we can't want this more than Afghans do, that the time has come to give Afghans the opportunity to determine their own future, etc. Thankfully, he did not. Because the mission in Afghanistan really does matter, and difficult as it is, remains worth the effort.
The United States and its allies went to war in Afghanistan not simply to retaliate for an attack on our own country, but to ensure the territory of Afghanistan ceased to be a terrorist training ground and operating base. Our military operations have forced al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations to focus on their survival, which diminishes their attention to plotting, training for, and conducting attacks. There should be no doubt that the objectives of these groups remain deadly and directed at us.
There should also be no doubt that simply killing bad guys is an inadequate strategy. Without a positive program for governance in Afghanistan, the territory will remain an attractive locale for terrorists to organize and operate. The nature of this threat is that it migrates to ungoverned spaces, and a quarantine strategy won't be good enough -- the crises of governance and adaptation to global modernity that feed this threat will continue to produce networks of killers.
Moreover, it is difficult to see how coalition forces can continue to pressure terrorists inside Pakistan if we write off Afghanistan. From where would we collect intelligence and base the forces and weapons we use in counter-terrorist strikes? How would we convincingly portray ourselves as different from what we are fighting? This war is ultimately won by delegitimizing our enemies, and that requires persuading the broader society that we can and will protect them, can and will help them improve the governance of their society -- not just forcing compliance.
Counterinsurgency is extraordinarily difficult and costly. It requires an extraordinary level of discipline and discriminating intelligence all the way down the line, even of the most junior soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Even when we prove good at it, as we did in Iraq and are in Afghanistan, progress is slow and setbacks are numerous. We make this difficult task much more difficult by too little civilian power (why is the military running the anti-corruption task force?) and imposition of politically-expedient deadlines unconnected to achievement of our objectives. But alternative strategies are also deeply problematic, with costs and vulnerabilities often underestimated.
The corruption and unreliability of President Karzai is another significant impediment to achieving our goals in Afghanistan. But agreeing to his proposal for an end to Coalition military operations would actually hand him the country. It is instructive that other Afghan leaders object strongly to the proposal; they see the progress we are making. What is working in Afghanistan is the patient construction of capable local and regional governance by Coalition forces and Afghans working together. That is a threat to Karzai's power; it is also a threat to the Taliban, which is why they embarked on a campaign of assassinating Afghan officials and seek to sow distrust between the Coalition and Afghan National Security Forces.
Which is why sticking with our strategy for Afghanistan through 2014 is so important. The 2014 elections in Afghanistan have the potential to institutionalize power in a country that has known little constraint, usher forth a new generation of Afghan leaders and coincide with Afghan security forces coming on line in numbers and proficiency to take over the work we are now doing. If we walk away before then -- or settle for just securing polling places rather than affecting the political ecosystem by our involvement -- we should expect Afghanistan to return to worse than how we found it in 2001. Our enemies will be emboldened, our friends will be punished, and our credibility will be deeply suspect.
Part of the reason the American public is inclined to question the war effort is that the president has put so little effort into defending it. But when given the opportunity to walk away from it, President Obama made clear this week that he intends to continue taking the fight to the Taliban, training Afghan National Security Forces so they can do the work Coalition forces are now doing, handing over those operations to Afghans with us in a supporting role to stabilize the transition, and remaining in some numbers in Afghanistan even after 2014. In recommitting himself to the agreed NATO strategy and its timeline, the president is finally leading the war effort.
President Obama deserves our praise and support for keeping a strategic perspective on what needs doing in Afghanistan, even with the buffeting of damaging events in the last couple of weeks.
It sure feels like we are on a knife's edge in Afghanistan, but I also know how hard it is to assess such things. And I know what it is like to be wrong. Those were my thoughts as I read the various accounts of the day's developments in Afghanistan, and especially after reading this quote from an unidentified "Western official":
A Western official in Kabul, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer his assessment, said he was hopeful that the anger over the shooting rampage could be overcome. The burning of Korans by U.S. troops on Feb. 20 -- which American officials said was accidental -- unleashed a wave of violent protests and prompted Afghan security forces to open fire on U.S. military trainers, but the fury subsided after a few days.
"Everyone said the burning of the Korans was a turning point," he said. "It came and it went. My best analysis is that everyone saw the abyss, and no one wanted to jump in."
That was eerily reminiscent of what Bush policymakers believed after the Golden Mosque bombing in February 2006. There was an immediate sectarian furor and then, as my former boss put it in an interview with Bob Schieffer, the Iraqis appeared to step back:
Mr. Hadley: ...So this is a society that has been tested for a while. The interesting point here is what conclusions the communities draw from this difficult week. They've stared into the abyss a bit. And I think they've all concluded that further violence, further tension between the communities is not in their interest. And our hope and our ambassador spoke about this this week that in this tragedy there actually is an opportunity where all the communities will decide that really it is in their mutual interest to avoid the violence, pull together and construct the kind of unity government that can move this country forward.
SCHIEFFER: So you're saying they stared into the abyss. Are you saying this may be in some way bring them together?
Mr. HADLEY: That is the hope. Having seen -- having been tested in this way, having seen what the terrorists are doing and trying to provoke the communities. What was interesting is all the statements from all the leaders was that this tactic would not succeed, that the communities were going to stay together and work together and to try and avoid violence and build a unity government.
As we now know, after abating briefly, the sectarian strife intensified throughout 2006 and within months Iraq was trapped in a vicious, self-sustaining cycle of sectarian violence. It took the Bush-Petraeus-Crocker surge to break that and put Iraq on a more positive trajectory.
Viewed through the lens of U.S. policy options, Afghanistan may be in a more perilous situation. Obama has already tried a surge; I doubt he could go to that option again even if he wanted to, which he shows no interest in doing.
The alternative that appears to be gaining momentum inside the Administration involves speeding the transition to Afghan control (ironically, precisely what the Baker-Hamilton Commission recommended as the alternative to the Iraq surge back in 2006), and relying on counter-terrorism operations by U.S. forces to protect core U.S. interests. However, as Steve Biddle points out, that option is based on "unrealistic assumptions."
Specifically, advocates of this accelerated transition option have somehow convinced themselves that once we hand over the mission to Afghan leaders, we can step back from expensive nation-building while maintaining precision-strike counter-terrorism operations. But the Afghan leaders hate most those counter-terrorism operations and like most our expensive commitment to nation-building. Why would they be more inclined to allow us to do what they hate when we have curtailed what they most want?
Of course, our national interest in continuing counter-terrorism strike missions will not wane, so the more realistic choice after transition will be this unpalatable set of options: (1) defer to Afghan concerns, at the cost of an ever-enlarging sanctuary for the terrorist network; (2) shift to longer-range counter-terrorism strikes, ones that do not rely on host-nation support. The problems with #1 are obvious. The problems with #2 are that longer-range strikes are also less precise, so they will involve more civilian casualties, thus inflaming Afghan concerns still further. They are also likely to inflame our NATO allies, who are already queasy about the more precise drone-strikes.
We may be at the worst kind of turning point: One where every turn leads to a worse situation.
In my previous two posts I began my argument that the world today is actually more dangerous than it was during the Cold War. I argued that the basic threat of great power rivalry with China and Russia has not gone away and, in the case of China, has increased.
My second argument is that, in addition to Russia and China, we now face up to three new entrants in the lists of authoritarian nuclear powers hostile to the United States: North Korea, Iran, and possibly Pakistan. During the Cold War the United States faced only one or two hostile nuclear powers at a time. We may soon be facing five. And the new nuclear powers are likely to present a direct threat to the American homeland in the near future, similar to the threat posed by the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War.
North Korea and Pakistan have nuclear weapons (which they didn't during the Cold War) and Iran is almost certainly going to get them. North Korea and Iran are avowed enemies of the United States; Pakistan is teetering on the brink. All three states have invested in medium and long-range ballistic missiles that could hit U.S. allies and, in all likelihood, will soon be able to produce missiles that could hit the U.S. homeland.
It is true that North Korea's nuclear arsenal is probably very small, and Iran is likely to have a small arsenal for a few years yet. But they only need a few warheads to pose a major threat to the United States. The Soviet Union had thousands of nuclear warheads, but after the first hundred or so each additional nuclear weapon doesn't add much more threat to the United States: you can already wipe out our entire civilization several times over. Given a few more years, Iran and North Korea will both probably have built enough warheads and developed the long-range ballistic missiles to pose an existential threat to the United States equal to that posed by the Soviet Union's and China's nuclear arsenals during the Cold War.
In addition to their nuclear capabilities, all three states have some of the largest conventional forces in the world today. It is true that all three countries are poor and lack a sophisticated military-industrial base, and Iran's and North Korea's conventional militaries have been debilitated by sanctions. I don't doubt our ability to win a hypothetical conventional war with any state. But because of their sheer size, even strictly conventional, non-nuclear wars with Iran, North Korea, or (heaven forbid) Pakistan would surely be much more costly in lives and treasure than anything since Vietnam, and possible since World War II.
Feng Li/Getty Images
I largely agree with Peter's recent, insightful post about U.S. grand strategy, except when he says that "Compared to the Cold War period, we have more slack in our security environment." In this he echoes Kori's earlier contention that "The world is much more conducive to American interests than [during the Cold War]: we are militarily dominant, the threats to us are fewer and less apocalyptic, our allies are more capable to handle their own problems, our enemies less so, and our values on the ascendancy." This seems to be a fashionable view. I recently heard an experienced foreign policy wonk claim at an event in D.C. that the United States currently faces "the lowest level of existential threat in U.S. history.
I disagree quite strongly -- not because the Cold War was such a wonderfully safe era, but because ours is more dangerous. Peter and I have both heard the view from our students that the Cold War was, on hindsight, a time of roses and sunshine, and I think he is right to criticize it. Our young students confuse simplicity with safety. It was a simple, dangerous world: nuclear war was simply terrifying. I am (just) old enough to have a living memory of the Cold War and the feeling of dread and danger it fostered. We were still doing duck-and-cover drills when I was in the 3rd grade. (Which always made me wonder: if my 3rd grade desk was nuclear-bomb-proof, why didn't they make the Pentagon out of the same material?)
Peter is right that the Cold War was ridiculously dangerous. During the Cold War the Soviet Union and China had nuclear and conventional capabilities superior to what North Korea and Iran have today, and the United States lost some 95,000 troops in two bloody wars in Korea and Vietnam. During the Cold War the United States and Russia competed globally; any local conflict had the potential to escalate into global war in which the American homeland would be directly threatened. This was without doubt a dangerous era.
Dmitry Chebotayev/Pressphotos/Getty Images
Because of a day in air travel purgatory, I have been unable to comment on President Barack Obama's Afghanistan decision and his rare prime-time address on war. With the "benefit" of an additional day of musing and reading other people's commentary, I have three somewhat contradictory takes. First, it seems clear that he is putting the country on an extraordinarily risky course, one that could jeopardize much of the gains achieved by his West Point surge. Second, he has not presented to the country a sound strategic rationale for why he is doing it this way, leaving the obvious alternative -- that this decision was driven by his electoral interests rather than the best national security interests of the country -- a more plausible explanation than it should otherwise be. But third, at least from the parochial perspective of civil-military relations theory, Obama is within his rights to make the decision in the way that he did, and so far, the senior military have behaved in an exemplary fashion.
The first point has been made well by my Shadow Gov colleague, Kori Schake. As was the case with his West Point surge, the president has hobbled the kinetic leg of his strategy with the self-inflicted diplomatic/political wound of signaling lack of resolve. As a result, not only will the coalition have fewer forces than the generals believe they require to implement the overall strategy effectively -- probably much fewer, as our allies respond to the dog whistle "retreat" sounding from the president's decision and accelerate their rush to the exits -- but those forces will be facing an enemy that has good reason to believe that time is on its side. The military brass report that the new course just might work, but it will be a very close run thing.
The second point has also been made by others. Since the military logic of the move is so weak, one naturally looks for some other explanation, such as a political angle. The president's decision to interrupt next summer's fighting season makes no military sense whatsoever; better to let the troops finish the fighting season and come home in the late fall or winter. But that would be after the election. So far as I have been able to determine, that is the only explanation of the timeline that makes sense, but I am open to hearing a convincing counterargument. I am very reluctant to charge a president with elevating domestic political interests over national security ones because I remember how unfairly Democrats made that charge against President George W. Bush -- and that was on a much more flimsy evidentiary basis. Yet, when I look for a more compelling alternative explanation, I can't find one. Certainly not in the speech, which, as Dov Zakheim pointed out, was strategically incoherent. Given how rarely he has spoken about Afghanistan, it is unfortunate that he squandered this rhetorical moment.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
President Obama is apparently going to announce the extent and pace of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this week. His decision, in December 2009, to begin the withdrawal in July 2011 was never a good idea because it gave the Taliban the incentive to simply wait us out and accelerate the U.S. public's war fatigue. The best Obama can do now is mitigate the damage by highlighting our hard-won progress of the last two years and telling the American people that stability in Afghanistan is both important and possible, that it will take patience, and that our withdrawal will be measured, slow, and not come at the risk of defeat.
We'll see how Obama measures up to this. Meanwhile, an equally interesting question is, how do the Republican presidential candidates measure up? With the exception of Mitt Romney, not very well.
Leading neoconservative Republicans criticized front-runner Mitt Romney for his statement on Afghanistan during the Republican presidential debate last week. But I think his comment was actually one of the better statements on Afghanistan, compared with the others we've heard recently. Here's what he actually said: "It's time for us to bring our troops home as soon as we possibly can, consistent with the word that comes to our generals that we can hand the country over to the [Afghan] military in a way that they're able to defend themselves ... I think we've learned some important lessons in our experience in Afghanistan. I want those troops to come home based upon not politics, not based upon economics, but instead based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals. But I also think we've learned that our troops shouldn't go off and try and fight a war of independence for another nation. Only the Afghanis [sic] can win Afghanistan's independence from the Taliban."
In other words, we should 1) heed the military's professional judgment, 2) withdraw based on conditions on the ground, and 3) resist withdrawing just to save a buck, and 4) demand more accountability from the Afghans. That's actually pretty good.
By contrast, Newt Gingrich did not directly address the issue of how many troops should be withdrawn, but he did say regarding foreign policy that "the price tag is always a factor." That's true in a trite and uninteresting sense: You don't want to bankrupt yourself unless your very survival is at stake. But Afghanistan is not bankrupting the U.S. Treasury. Much has been made about the price tag of the Afghanistan war, but the reality is that $100 billion per year is peanuts compared with what Iraq cost at its height and less than peanuts compared with the trillions we spend on entitlements and the broader defense budget. Gingrich seemed to imply that we can't afford the Afghanistan war: No one has yet explained how we can afford the consequences of rapid withdrawal.
TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images
According to press reports, President Obama will soon clarify one of the lingering mysteries about his Afghanistan policy: what he meant by the July 2011 deadline he imposed on the "West Point surge" he announced in December 2009. If the advance leaks are any indication, Obama is under some pressure to replace one form of strategic confusion with another.
The arbitrary timeline generated considerable confusion after the West Point speech, with senior administration officials contradicting each other in background interviews and occasionally even on the record. Since the West Point surge was itself a product of a compromise -- it split the difference between advisors who wanted to jettison Obama's campaign critique of Bush-era Afghan policy so as to shift back to a Rumsfeldian light-footprint posture and those advisors who advocated nearly the opposite approach of replicating Bush's Iraq surge in Afghanistan -- the timeline had the awkward feel of a hybrid policy based on contradictory premises. One premise was that cooperation from locals depended on them not taking U.S. support for granted. The other premise was that cooperation from locals depended on them not hedging against U.S. abandonment. The West Point surge adopted the kinetics implied by the second premise, but undercut the policy with the rhetorical posture implied by the first premise.
The resulting internal strategic incoherence yielded a heavy dollop of public strategic confusion. Many observers recognized this was a mistake. Occasionally an insider would concede as much in private but publicly the administration stoutly defended the contradiction.
The contradiction has now played itself out and it is time for Obama to reveal his thinking. In an eerie parallel with the earlier debate, some advisors want him to rush the end of the Afghan surge and declare that all surge troops will be out within a year. Other advisors want him to announce a token withdrawal -- sort of a down payment on further reductions -- but keep most of the combat power in place through several more Afghan fighting seasons. The compromise position appears to be announcing an arbitrary deadline for the withdrawal of all surge troops -- well, not that arbitrary since it will happen to coincide with the presidential elections -- but delegating to the military the pace and timing of the withdrawals.
The Obama war pattern has been to split such differences and to adopt a policy that has more kinetic punch than the doves want but to frame (and in some cases, to undercut) that kinetic punch with dovish concessions. The betting money is that he will do the same thing this time. The result is a policy that neither fully satisfies nor fully enrages either side. There is enough hawkish punch to achieve some battlefield results (or, in the case of Iraq, to forestall a battlefield collapse) but not enough to maximize the chances for success.
TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images
Fellow FP blogger David Rothkopf criticizes outgoing Defense Secretary Bob gates for daring to notice progress in Afghanistan. Rothkopf doubts that reconciliation with the Taliban is truly possible or that political progress "would actually ultimately make Afghanistan any more stable or any less likely to become a haven for terrorist groups." He argues that the 2014 deadline has eroded our leverage in negotiations with the Taliban and undermined our influence in post-war Afghanistan. Most incredibly, he believes that "ten years of waging this war have been so unfruitful" that any further effort is futile.
Rothkopf is right about the 2014 deadline and wrong about everything else. Take his assertion that a political deal with the Taliban has no prospect of improving stability in Afghanistan or denying safe haven to al-Qaeda. This seems to me a completely unfounded assertion. Post-war Afghanistan is not going to be a particularly pleasant place to live, but a post-war Afghanistan created by a negotiated settlement with most insurgents on terms favorable to us will almost certainly be a more pleasant, and safer, place than Afghanistan circa 2001 and one in which we will retain the ability to protect our interests in South Asia.
Rothkopf elides the difference between a sup-optimal outcome and complete failure. It is as if our failure to achieve perfection means that we should give up completely. Since we admittedly bungled the job for the first five or six years, paid an irreparable opportunity cost, and can no longer hope to achieve in Afghanistan what we could have if we had put out a good faith effort from the very beginning, we should, according to Rothkopf, call it quits.
This is nonsense. Rothkopf is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Perfection is out of our grasp, but we can still achieve better-than-awful. We won't get an A, but we might pull out a C, which is better than the F we'll get if we pull out too quickly. Notably Rothkopf does not describe what is likely to happen following a rapid American withdrawal (civil war, instability in Pakistan), the costs associated with those consequences, or how we should deal with that scenario. He can't, because all of those considerations prove that Rothkopf's prescription is worse than the disease.
PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
A recent Washington Post poll shows that President Obama probably has the political breathing room he would need to choose from a wider array of options on Afghanistan than the conventional wisdom believes. While support for the war is eroding, it has not eroded to the point where domestic political considerations need trump a careful consideration of conditions on the ground in Afghanistan. Put another way: if a measured withdrawal would increase prospects for a successful outcome in Afghanistan than would a rapid retreat from the theater, then there may be enough political space in American domestic politics to permit such an approach.
This only sharpens the very difficult choice confronting Obama. Fred and Kimberly Kagan argue that conditions on the ground dictate delaying the withdrawal, or at least opting for a slower, more modest withdrawal than the anti-war faction has demanded. If the Kagans are right -- and I would note that Stephen Biddle has offered a similar compelling take -- then a hasty withdrawal is precisely the wrong thing to do at this point. Some of Obama's advisors are arguing for an accelerated withdrawal, while others are arguing for a more measured transition that would focus on the 2014 strategic horizon.
In sum, expert opinion is divided with forceful arguments on either side. And, not coincidentally, political support is weak. Weak, but perhaps not completely beyond the reach of a determined mobilization effort -- or so the recent poll might suggest. That such a window still exists is a remarkable fact, given how little President Obama has done to shore up political support for the war he called a "necessary" war a few years ago. It means that President Obama does face political pressure to end the war in Afghanistan, but that that pressure need not be considered irresistible. A determined commander-in-chief could still pursue a costlier strategy, provided that he persuaded the American public that this offered the best chance of leading to a more successful outcome.
But first, one person needs to be persuaded: himself. The most important Afghanistan debate today is not the one in Congress or in opinion polls. It is the one inside President Obama's head and heart. Even insiders very close to the action do not feel confident about predicting the outcome of that debate.
From my distant perch in the bleachers, I have even less confidence in forecasting the Obama debate. I will, however, predict that he will give us a clearer window into his thinking through some sort of Big Speech on Afghanistan within the month. I do not see how he can avoid doing so on the margins of deciding/announcing how many U.S. troops will exit Afghanistan starting July.
Brian Ferguson/U.S. via Getty Images
According to the New York Times, Pakistan has demanded that the United States halt drone strikes on Pakistani territory and draw down the number of CIA and Special Forces personnel in the country. The move is in response to the United States' insistence that Pakistan release American contractor Raymond Davis, who had been arrested on charges of murder. If true, and if Pakistan holds fast to its demands, the move could represent a watershed in U.S.-Pakistani relations.
Since 2001 U.S. relations with Pakistan have been premised on the idea that Pakistan shares U.S. interests in South Asia and is willing and able to cooperate with us. The first idea -- that we share interests -- is patently wrong. The second is increasingly doubtful. What then? What should U.S. policy towards Pakistan be?
For 60 years Pakistan has defined its national interest as the ability to compete with India, retain its hold on part of Kashmir, and advance its standing in the Muslim world. To that end it fought three wars (four if you count the Kargil conflict in 1999) with India since 1947, sought hegemony over Afghanistan as "strategic depth," developed nuclear weapons, and supported a range of militants as proxies against Afghanistan and India. None of this is in America's interest.
A. MAJEED/AFP/Getty Images
Signals from the White House indicate that President Obama's State of the Union (SOTU) address tomorrow night will focus heavily on domestic and economic policy. Understandably so, as domestic and economic issues spurred the GOP's massive Congressional gains, and remain the nation's predominant concerns. The SOTU is President Obama's best platform to regain the political initiative and point the country towards his preferred course over the next two years.
Yet the president should not neglect national security policy in the SOTU, for two reasons. First, while the American people are his primary audience, we are not his only audience. Foreign leaders -- friends, foes, and fence-sitters alike -- will be watching keenly for signs from Obama about strategic priorities and U.S. resolve. Second, while domestic and economic policy has thus far defined this presidency, the future by its nature will surprise, and national security could reemerge as a defining concern.
Here are three issues President Obama should address tomorrow night:
Afghanistan. The administration continues to send conflicting and conflicted signals about the Afghanistan war and the meaning of July 2011 as a "drawdown" date. As Peter Feaver has argued, the White House's rhetorical neglect of Afghanistan threatens to erode tenuous public support. Meanwhile, key actors -- ranging from our NATO allies, India, and the Afghan people and government to Pakistan and the Taliban -- all remain uncertain about the United States' commitment to success in the Afghan mission. And all will in their own ways hedge accordingly. The Congressional audience tomorrow night will be essential for supporting and continuing to fund the war effort -- and needs to know it is a priority for the president. Most important, U.S. forces currently deployed in theater need to hear from their commander-in-chief that he is resolved to see their efforts through.
Darren McCollester/Getty Images
"Pakistan is said to pursue a foothold in Afghanistan," reads today's headline. Breaking news? Old news, rather.
Nonetheless, the New York Times has done its readers a service by laying out clearly the danger the Pakistani military's intentions pose to the project of democratic state-building and security in Afghanistan. It has also reminded us, yet again, how President Obama's July 2011 date for the start of a U.S. troop drawdown has created a perverse incentive structure that encourages both the Afghan and Pakistani governments to hedge against the United States in this vital region. No matter how talented General David Petraeus proves to be commanding American and NATO forces, it is hard to see how our Afghan strategy can be successful absent a strategic reorientation by the Obama administration that creates a different calculus for leaders in Kabul and Rawalpindi (headquarters of the Pakistani armed forces) with regard to the Afghan endgame.
Pakistan's military intelligence establishment continues to define national security with reference to the weakness and pliability, rather than the strength, of its Afghan neighbor. There is both an external and an internal logic to this construction of national security.
Externally, Pakistan seeks "strategic depth" against India, whose influence and friendly relations with the government of President Hamid Karzai threaten the Pakistani nightmare of strategic encirclement. Moreover, the Pakistani security establishment's sponsorship of the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba is today what Pakistan's sponsorship of Kashmiri militants was in the 1980s and 1990s -- a strategic tool to target and weaken India through terrorist attacks while enabling Rawalpindi to claim plausible deniability. At the same time, Pakistan's close relationship with the forces of Sirajuddin Haqqani (an important al Qaeda ally) and the Afghan Taliban give it critical leverage in its dealings with Washington.
Despite the billions of dollars of assistance the United States provides its South Asian ally, many members of Pakistan's strategic elite believe that, as a result of the influence Rawalpindi derives from its friendship with our enemies, the United States needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs the United States. In this view, if Pakistan severed its close links to selected militants, closed down their sanctuaries in Pakistan's tribal regions, and fully endorsed the Western project in Afghanistan, Pakistani leaders might no longer enjoy the red-carpet treatment from Washington. Pakistan therefore derives strength in its dealings with America by pursuing differentiated strategic objectives rather than similar ones. This is a different conception of the notion of "ally" than applies to American relations with other key partners.
This reality, in turn, leads to the internal logic of Pakistani statecraft in Afghanistan. The military intelligence establishment's position at the core of Pakistani society and politics has been strengthened, not weakened, by Western intervention in Afghanistan over the past nine years (though the opposite would have been true had the West and our Afghan partners succeeded in building a functioning and accountable Afghan state that highlighted Pakistan's own political deficiencies). The war against al Qaeda and the Taliban made General Pervez Musharraf's military dictatorship appear indispensable to the United States. Following Pakistan's democratic transition (which Washington supported, though not soon enough) and the subsequent U.S. presidential succession, Obama forged a new Afghan strategy that has increasingly come to rely on Pakistan to deliver the Afghan Taliban (and perhaps also the militant networks run by Siraj Haqqani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) for an Afghan political settlement that would give these forces -- each currently allied in various ways with al Qaeda -- positions of power in a new Afghan constitutional settlement so that Western forces could come home.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Nothing sums up the sorry state of U.S. policy toward Kyrgyzstan than these contrasting images from last week: at the same time that thousands of Kyrgyz were taking to the streets protesting against their corrupt authoritarian leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Bakiyev's son, Maksim, was arriving in Washington for consultations with U.S. officials. While Kyrgyzstan literally was burning, U.S. officials were prepared for business-as-usual talks with Maksim, who, like his father, has been accused of engaging in massive corruption and human rights abuses. More than 80 people were killed in last week's violence.
For several years, U.S. policy toward Kyrgyzstan has focused almost exclusively on keeping open its military airbase at Manas, through which 50,000 troops passed on their way to and from Afghanistan last month. Bakiyev early last year threatened to close the facility while on a visit to Moscow, which offered $2 billion as an inducement for him to kick the Americans out. But Bakiyev doublecrossed Moscow by agreeing to keep Manas open after the United States agreed to triple the rent it paid from $18 million annually to $60 million and promised another $100 million in aid, including a recently-announced counter-terrorism center.
To those in the Kyrgyz opposition, it seemed the United States was willing to pay Bakiyev virtually any price, including looking the other way from a markedly deteriorating human rights situation, as long as Manas stayed open. Defending against such criticism, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley argued, "We've been very clear in our concerns about the government, its abuses, its corruption." The reality, however, at least in public, is very different.
There are only two statements that can be found over the past few months in which the U.S. has spoken out about the problems in Kyrgyzstan: a January 21 statement from the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in Vienna about the murder of a Kyrgyz journalist (which occurred a month before), and the State Department's annual Human Rights Report, released last month and which covers every country around the globe. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek lists no public statements of concern on its website this year.
Striking in the Human Rights Report is admission that last July's Kyrgyz presidential election, which triggered much of the opposition's fervor, "failed to meet many of the country's international commitments" and was "marred by significant obstacles for opposition parties, intimidation, voting irregularities, and the use of government resources to benefit specific political interests." Such an assessment raises doubts as to whether Bakiyev was the democratically-elected leader of the country in the first place.
During a recent visit to Central Asia, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon voiced concerns about the poor human rights situation in the region. In a speech to the Kyrgyz parliament on Saturday, four days before the situation exploded, Ban said, "For the United Nations, the protection of human rights is a bedrock principle if a country is to prosper. Recent events have been troubling, including the past few days. I repeat: all human rights must be protected, including free speech and freedom of the media."
VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images
In a conversation about Kazakhstan's backsliding on democratic reforms, this story over at the Cable relates that President Obama downplayed any pressure by telling Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev that the United States is still "working" on its own democracy. And in a rather clumsy effort to walk back from the obvious implication of moral equivalency between the Kazakh and American systems, NSC Senior Director Mike McFaul (who himself has a long-standing commitment to democracy promotion) pointed not to the strength of America's national principles but to, well, his own boss: "[Obama's] taken, I think, rather historic steps to improve our own democracy since coming to office here in the United States."
The problem with these Obama Administration statements is not that they are technically false. Virtually every American would concede that, measured against a Platonic ideal, the American democratic system will always have areas for improvement. And virtually every American would also see President Obama's election as a historic achievement in light of America's troubled racial past.
The problem with President Obama's reported statements is rather than, in context, they are untrue and unhelpful. There are several reasons why:
Erlan Idrissov, Kazakstan's ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview that Mr. Obama offered Mr. Nazarbayev the Winston Churchill quote on democracy being "the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." "There was no pressure at all in the meeting," the ambassador said."
President Obama addressed some of these last concerns admirably and forcefully in his Oslo speech last year. But with this latest missed opportunity with Kazakhstan, one worries that old habits might be returning.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
The capture of Taliban commander Mullah Baradar in a combined Pakistani-American intelligence operation in Karachi is a major development in the war on terror. This is true not only, and obviously, with reference to the military campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Perhaps more profoundly, it is also true with reference to the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations. It could be a critical step forward in a long-troubled partnership, one fueled by converging perceptions of the threat of Islamic extremism. But, if part of a deal to grant Pakistan a free hand in Afghanistan once American forces withdraw in return for greater near-term cooperation to support the West's rush to exit the region, it could presage a troubling step backward.
The CIA worked closely with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) in combined intelligence operations targeting Al Qaeda after September 11, 2001 -- following a famous U.S. ultimatum to Pakistan to assist in the Taliban's defeat in Afghanistan or share its fate, and reinforced by al Qaeda's repeated assassination attempts against General Pervez Musharraf, the country's military ruler at the time. But ISI has continued to enjoy intimate relations with the Afghan Taliban, which it helped create and bring to power in 1996. More recently, Pakistani intelligence officers have helped Afghan Taliban commanders outwit their American adversaries, even as ISI benefited from American material support. Indeed, Mullah Baradar was previously captured by Afghan forces in November 2001 -- then released after ISI intervention, according to the New York Times.
What has changed the Pakistani military leadership's calculus to the point that ISI has now helped capture the Afghan Taliban's No. 2 leader? The optimist's answer is, in a word, the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan sponsored the Taliban when it was a vehicle for Pakistani influence in Afghanistan's Pashtun heartland. But the spillover from the Taliban's resurgence next door helped create a monster in the form of the Pakistani Taliban, whose suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks increasingly have targeted the institutions of the Pakistani state and its supreme defender: the Pakistani armed forces.
ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images
An end of the year meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Japanese Ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki exemplifies all that is wrong with Obama's Asia policy. In a matter of weeks, China blew up the Copenhagen climate change talks and humiliated President Obama, executed a mentally ill Brit on drug possession charges, and sentenced Liu Xiabo, the human rights activist and political reformer to 11 years in prison.
And what does the Administration do? Call in the Japanese ambassador to, as the Washington Post put it, tell him in "blunt, if diplomatic, terms that the United States remains adamant about moving a Marine base from one part of Okinawa to another."
Are we really willing to wreck one of our most successful alliances over a real estate dispute? Meanwhile, as Washington hyperventilates about Japan's coming entente with China, Prime Minister Hatayoma just concluded a successful visit to India. A deeper Tokyo-Delhi security cooperation pact is not exactly a kowtow to China.
The "kick Japan kiss China approach" is indicative of a larger Obama problem: the inability to distinguish friends from rivals. The administration has frozen sales to Taiwan. Reports out of India indicate that the Obama administration "has signaled its intent to abandon elements in its ties with New Delhi that could rile China, including a joint military drill in Arunachal and any further Indo-U.S. naval maneuvers involving Japan or more parties like Australia."
Despite stiffing Obama on issues from human rights (he was supposed to be more effective than his predecessors with his quiet diplomacy -- that was the justification for dissing the Dalai Lama), Iran, and climate change, China not only gets a pass, but sits back and grins as Washington undercuts its friends.
As the New Year approaches, it is high time for a review of Asia policy. I suggest beginning with a simple set of questions: why has not a single weapons system been sold to Taiwan, why are we escalating a real estate dispute with Japan to ruinous levels, why is our free trade agreement with South Korea still frozen, and why are we rolling back our cooperation with India? If we are sacrificing pro-ally initiatives for the sake of better relations with China it is not working.
David Gray-Pool/Getty Images
The New York Times has two stories today that neatly illustrate the challenges President Obama and his team face in working with our allies, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Afghanistan story
reveals that there may well have been a serious discussion about "doing
a Diem to Karzai" -- that is, discussion about whether to try to replace
Karzai with a more pliant leader. The proponent of this idea was Peter
Galbraith, an American who worked on the United Nations team trying to help the
Afghan government transition to full, stable democracy. Galbraith is an
interesting figure; he was the original author of what became known as the
Biden Plan to divide Iraq into 3-parts, and he gained notoriety in recent
months for not having revealed an alleged conflict
of interest (he stood to make millions of dollars from oil deals in
autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq).
In the story, Galbraith emphasizes that he never actually implemented the plan, though he did apparently try to reach out to Biden's office to persuade the vice president on the matter. The problem, however, was that Galbraith's U.N. bosses were appalled at the proposal, and Karzai got wind of the plan. In short order the United States had to climb down. Karzai is (understandably) angry and suspicious about what he doubtless views to be arrogant and perhaps even imperialist behavior on the part of the Americans. And, as a consequence, our influence over the Kabul government is arguably less than it might otherwise have been.
The Pakistan story has a different lede, but perhaps is of a piece with Afghan story. The stated lede is: Pakistani harassment of U.S. contractors and junior diplomats is undermining the war effort. The implicit link to the other story is: our Pakistani allies believe the United States has been acting in an arrogant, imperialist fashion and, as a consequence, our leverage over them is less than it might otherwise be.
It may strike some as odd that an administration that has taken such pains to present itself as more reasonable and less prone to cowboy diplomacy than its predecessors would find itself in this predicament. The truth is that the Obama and Bush teams held to very different theories about how best to cajole our war allies into more constructive cooperation. The Bush team, belying the cowboy image, believed that we got better results when we pressured beleaguered allies like Karzai or Musharraf in private and offered assurances in public. The Obama team believes that they will get better results if they pressure in private and in public. Moreover, the Obama team feels the need to demonstrate to domestic critics that it really is getting tough on both the Afghan and the Pakistani government.
It is very hard, however, to do that kind of public pressuring without antagonizing the government you are trying to cajole. In the same way, it is very hard to engage in various regime-change plotting without generating similar antagonisms.
That has been part of the AfPak story over the last year and it is part of the reason that the policy results have been mixed.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
By Peter Feaver
With America's newspaper running a huge story on the casket ceremony at Dover, and with NATO allies struggling with the mounting human toll in Afghanistan, it is appropriate to return to the issue of how casualties affect public support for continuing the war. As it happens, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates addressed this very issue himself in a wide-ranging interview published over the weekend in the LA Times.
Gates's thesis is largely correct. According to the LA Times:
Gates said that Americans would have the patience to continue the war in Afghanistan only if the new military approach began to move the conflict out of deadlock. 'If we can show progress, and we are headed in the right direction, and we are not in a stalemate where we are taking significant casualties, then you can put more time on the Washington clock,' he said."
This is an adequate bumper-sticker summary of the argument that my colleagues and I developed, although a more complete summary would note that public prospective expectations of success interact with their retrospective judgments about the rightness or wrongness of the war. In the Afghanistan case, both are in play -- surprisingly so since there is no WMD-intelligence-failure to undermine the rationale for the Afghan war. Yet Gates is right to emphasize the prospective judgment about success because that is the one that is most in jeopardy and, I would argue, most affected by prevailing elite debates.
So how can the Obama team shore up public support for Afghanistan? First and foremost, they have to develop a strategy that will, in fact, lead to success. Facts on the ground matter and no amount of lipstick can beautify a pig. The Obama team is still feeling its way in Afghanistan but the combo of Gates-Petraeus-McChrystal does inspire confidence that they will adjust the strategy as needed to maximize the chance for success, provided that they have the support of the President. Essentially this same team (plus General Odierno and Ambassador Crocker) did just that in Iraq in 2007. Back then they had the unqualified support of the President -- they were, after all, implementing the new strategy he had developed and chosen -- and they refined the "surge" strategy as needed to produce remarkable results on the ground. Something like that is necessary in Afghanistan now.
Necessary, but not sufficient because such changes may take time and the public must be persuaded to hang in there while the strategy plays itself out. For this piece, presidential rhetorical leadership matters and a persuasive account to the public on the strategy and how to evaluate its effectiveness in light of unfolding events is essential. In short, the Obama team must develop credible measures of effectiveness and articulate them. The Obama team has already indicated that they are trying to identify such measures, seeking to avoid the measures that the media sensationalize -- attack numbers and kill numbers -- and focusing instead on indicators related to local governance and economic development.
As it happens, the Bush Administration wrestled with just this sort of problem. In the declassified explanation of the pre-surge Iraq strategy released in November 2005, the Administration sought to identify for the American public how to evaluate the progress (or lack thereof) of what was dubbed the "stand-up/stand-down" strategy:
We track numerous indicators to map the progress of our strategy and change our tactics whenever necessary. Detailed reports - both classified and unclassified - are issued weekly, monthly, and quarterly by relevant agencies and military units.
- Many of these reports with detailed metrics are released to the public, and are readily accessible. For example:
- Gains in training Iraqi security forces are updated weekly at www.mnstci.iraq.centcom.mil;
- Improvements in the economy and infrastructure are collected weekly by the State Department (www.state.gov/p/nea/rls/rpt/iraqstatus/) as well as USAID, which continually updates its many ongoing programs and initiatives in Iraq (www.usaid.gov/iraq);
- Extensive reports are also made every three months to Congress, and are accessible at the State (www.state.gov/p/nea/rls/rpt/2207/) and Defense (www.defenselink.mil/pubs/) Department websites.
- Americans can read and assess these reports to get a better sense of what is being done in Iraq and the progress being made on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis.
- Some of the most important metrics we track are:
- Political: The political benchmarks set forth in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1546 and the Transitional Administrative Law; the number of Iraqis from all areas willing to participate in the political process as evidenced by voter registration and turnout.
- Security: The quantity and quality of Iraqi units; the number of actionable intelligence tips received from Iraqis; the percentage of operations conducted by Iraqis alone or with minor Coalition assistance; the number of car bombs intercepted and defused; offensive operations conducted by Iraqi and Coalition forces; and the number of contacts initiated by Coalition forces, as opposed to the enemy.
- Economic: GDP; per capita GDP; inflation; electricity generated and delivered; barrels of oil produced and exported; and numbers of businesses opened.
- Other indicators are also important to success, but less subject to precise measurement, such as the extent to which principles of transparency, trust in government institutions, and acceptance of the rule of law are taking hold amongst a population that has never known them.
- These indicators have more strategic significance than the metrics that the terrorists and insurgents want the world to use as a measure of progress or failure: number of bombings."
Such efforts at public persuasion can have an effect. In the academic study I did with my Duke colleagues, we discovered that the measures of effectiveness that the public identified as the ones they watched to see if the Iraq war was leading to success or failure were essentially the very same ones that the Bush Administration emphasized in its own rhetoric. In my judgment, this was so for two reasons: (1) the Bush Administration rhetoric on this issue was reasonable -- the measures of effectiveness the Administration was emphasizing were plausible and grounded in a reasonable "theory of the case" and so persuasive to a rational public; and (2) the Bush Administration devoted extraordinary amounts of presidential capital, especially time and focus, on the Iraq war.
I am reasonably confident that the Obama team will develop a similarly well-grounded "theory of the case" in Afghanistan. And I am very confident that this team has the rhetorical chops to persuade the American people, should they devote the effort to doing so. I am less confident that they will devote that effort because they have launched so many other initiatives requiring equal-or-greater expenditures of presidential capital.
A last word: the Obama team needs to minimize self-inflicted wounds of the Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot sort. The public will not believe the Obama team is on a successful trajectory if they themselves indicate they are more preoccupied by short-term politics of the matter than the substance. Such a perception is harmful and unnecessary. The truth is that President Obama is a war-time commander-in-chief and, like all war-time commanders-in-chief, his political fortunes will rise or fall with success in the war. Ultimately, focusing on getting national security right is both good policy and good politics.
U.S. Department of Defense/The National Security Archive via Getty Images
By Peter Feaver
was wrong (and lots of people are adding, "again"). It turns out that
Dennis Ross will not be taking up the strategic planning portfolio, as I had
but will instead take up the broader Middle East portfolio.
The wiring diagram is not clear from afar (and may not even be clear from
close up) but it looks like he will have a position more like a combination of
the roles filled by Elliott Abrams,
who covered everywhere the "Near East and North Africa" from Morocco to Iran
(but not Iraq), plus Meghan O'Sullivan,
who had Iraq and Afghanistan. He also has Pakistan, and so that gives him
a remarkably broad regional portfolio that encompasses the two hot war military
conflicts plus arguably the most urgent national security problem (Iran). It encompasses the portfolios of two formidable Special Envoys housed at
State -- George Mitchell (Israel-Palestine) and Richard Holbrooke (Af-Pak). It also, quite deliberately I suspect, matches almost exactly the
portfolio of General Petraeus, CENTCOM commander. That is a lot of grist
for one mill, and more world-historical-figures than most mortals could hope to
coordinate. But Dennis has formidable talents and will, I believe, work
well with Tom Donilon, the deputy national security advisor who is said to have
been the one most keen to bring him on board. So I think it will work out
well. For my part, I will be interested to see how all these people
coordinate with the Global Engagement Directorate
which struck me as an intriguing office when it was announced (especially for
the region that comprises Dennis Ross's portfolio) but which, so far as I
can tell, is still in the process of getting its sea legs.
As for my old post on the NSC's strategic planning cell, I now believe it is being filled by Ambassador Mary Yates. She has a long and distinguished record of public service. She is a career Foreign Service Officer with an extensive career with emphasis on Africa. She most recently served as the senior civilian advisor at the new military command of AFRICOM. This experience of close coordination with the uniformed and civilian sectors of the Department of Defense -- at the intersection of policy and operations - will be valuable for her in her new post. The key to succeeding in the strategic planning office lies in establishing close working relationships vertically with the top people -- Jones and Donilon -- and horizontally with the other heavyweights at the NSC -- likely to be Ross and McDonough - and diagonally with the other key offices in the White House. If Ambassador Yates can do that, the office has the potential to make useful contributions to the system. The Obama administration likes to think big about domestic and foreign affairs and so it is a good time to be sitting in the "big think" chair.
By Christian Brose
The biggest question I brought into the Munich Security Conference this past weekend was, what is to be done in Afghanistan?
I've been struck by how quickly U.S. public opinion has shifted from the "good war" to looming quagmire. In part this is because there's more public focus now on the problem and, with it, a growing recognition of just how hard it really is. The Obama administration is learning this too, and has thus sought to lower expectations after alleging that Bush over-promised and under-delivered. That move has only fed elite and popular fears, not assuaged them. For me, all this raised a lot of questions about what U.S. goals should be and what is really achievable, especially with so much else on our plate right now, both at home and abroad.
So I spent my weekend in Munich posing these questions to people who knew far more about the situation than I -- senior military officials, ambassadors, South Asia specialists, and counterinsurgency experts. Here are a few points I took away:
1. We can win the war in Afghanistan. This, obviously, is most important. That said, it will be hard as hell and, even then, the chances of failure are still sobering. The question I asked repeatedly was, can we in good conscience send 30,000 more souls to fight in Afghanistan? Will they make a lasting difference? And the answer I got from nearly everyone was, yes --provided we fix our own organizational problems.
I consistently heard that a better designed and resourced counterinsurgency strategy can succeed in strengthening the Afghan National Army, beating back the Taliban, building up the Afghan state and society, and then passing off the security effort to them. For this to happen, though, the best thing we can do right now is to get out of our own way. As one retired senior military official told me, half of our problems are self-inflicted: muddled command structures, poor coordination, an embassy not fully on a war footing, lack of an integrated civil-military campaign plan, etc. One good idea I heard was to place a new U.S. headquarters in the south, where the fighting is toughest, so a senior American commander can run the alliance's war effort there and in the east, thereby freeing up our commander in Kabul to focus on Afghanistan's myriad other challenges.
By one theory I heard, the next 12 months is our window to reset our campaign: to make the necessary organizational changes, reinforce and reposition our troops, expand our civilian efforts, get more from our allies, and get our civilian and military forces in the right places -- all while continuing to prosecute the war, of course. Then, the following two years will be the decisive period when the war will be won or lost. If we squander this initial 12-month window, however, we will have already lost.
2. We can lose Afghanistan in Washington. Obviously, maintaining and strengthening the very fickle public support for the war is key, especially when even more Americans start dying there. The surest way to lose the war, however, is to lower the bar on U.S. goals. In his Munich speech, Vice President Biden described the U.S. goal as "a stable Afghanistan that's not a haven for terrorists." Ambassador Holbrooke spoke of needing to revise U.S. goals entirely so as to make them "attainable." OK. The problem is, in its eagerness to show just how willing it is to make hard choices, the Obama administration seems to be falling into the trap of making false choices.
The consensus among experts I spoke with this weekend was that moving toward a primarily counterterrorism strategy will not lead to the lasting stability we seek in Afghanistan. Instead, it is a recipe for creating Somalia in Central Asia and then hoping to manage the problem in the same flawed way: contain the bad guys in the country as best as possible and then whack them with Predator strikes and special forces whenever they pop their heads up. This may be the best we can or are willing to do in Somalia. But the cost of handling Afghanistan in the same way is much, much higher. It will destabilize the most volatile region in the world even more than it already is, and it will only increase the likelihood that we and our allies will get hit again.
What I heard again and again is that we may have to settle for a counterterrorism-focused mission, but that should be an unfortunate option of last resort, not our going-in policy. Furthermore, we should not allow resources to determine strategy, as this study suggests, which was one interpretation I heard for the administration's recent statements walking back U.S. goals: The economy's bad, and we have to do what we can. This gets it backwards. We should determine the optimal outcome we are confident we can accomplish, and then pay for it. After all, we still have a GDP of, what, $12 trillion? If our conception of strategic success is achievable, let's not hide behind tightening budgets.
3. Lasting security requires democratic development. This builds on the previous point about not lowering our sights. Another question I asked everyone in Munich was, what kind of political order should we seek in Afghanistan? I hear so many tortured efforts, both by the administration and by commentators, to qualify our definition of the Afghan state: legitimate, accountable, non-corrupt, effective, law-abiding, rights-based, etc. -- in short, anything but "democratic." To me, this smacks of knee-jerk, "anything-but-Bush" fuzziness -- unless, that is, someone in the administration or out of it is prepared to stand up and say that the nature of the Afghan regime has no bearing on our mission, and we'll settle for whatever works.
The fact is, democracy in Afghanistan is at once desired by most Afghans, desirable for U.S. interests, and attainable. One person in Munich pointed me toward this December 2008 polling by the Asia Foundation, which is astonishing. In essence, it shows that Afghans of all ethnicities and regions overwhelmingly think (still) that democracy is the best form of government, and the number one reason they list is that it will guarantee their rights -- rights they've been denied for decades now.
Yes, Afghans are growing more and more frustrated with the coalition presence. But that, I was told, is mainly because of its perceived incompetence and role as the backer of an unpopular and ineffective Afghan government. Most problematic, one counterinsurgency expert told me, is Afghanistan's unelected governors, who are appointed from Kabul, don't understand the problems of their people, and aren't accountable for fixing them. Thus, this expert suggested that the best thing we could do is hold provincial elections tomorrow, which may not always give power to nice guys, but at least they would be more legitimate in the eyes of the Afghans and better local partners for our counterinsurgency efforts. So the problem with Afghan politics may not be too much democracy, but not enough.
4. Be careful with Karzai. The Afghan president gave an awful speech in Munich. It was classic Karzai: 40 minutes of rambling happy talk. He explained, for example, that Afghanistan was not a "narco-state" but a "poppy-producing country." This distinction was lost on me and most present. Many in Munich, however, thought the Obama administration has been too openly critical of Karzai. I am told that General Eikenberry, the next U.S. ambassador in Kabul, doesn't get along particularly well with Karzai. Holbrooke, in his remarks in Munich, was dripping with contempt for Karzai, referring to his rejection of Paddy Ashdown as international reconstruction coordinator as a "fiasco." While Karzai spoke, the look on James Jones's face could only be described as repressed rage.
Now, it's no secret that Karzai has increasingly become a failed (and corrupt) leader. And though anything is possible, the odds of him experiencing a Maliki-like transformation seem low. Still, Karzai is the elected president of Afghanistan, and good alternatives are not exactly in large supply. There remains a very good chance that he will be reelected in a few months, and the administration can't afford to burn its bridges. I was told by one person who had worked with Karzai that he has to be pushed hard and persistently to do better, but this should be done quietly, the way Zalmay Khalilzad did when he was ambassador, or the way Ryan Crocker handled Maliki. Otherwise, we'll alienate and possibly make worse the guy we could very well be stuck with whether we like it or not.
5. Our NATO allies aren't tapped out, but don't hold your breath. It's right to continue pushing our allies to contribute more troops and to lift their restrictions on how and where they can fight. But the odds of, say, Germany allowing its more than 3,200 troops to operate anywhere but the relatively stable north of Afghanistan, and even then, not to go out at night or conduct foot patrols, is slim. That said, one senior U.S. diplomat told me that NATO allies will likely be willing and able to provide more support, possibly special forces and personnel for Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams, or OMLTs: embedded units that help to train and professionalize the Afghan National Army. (In our government's acronym-loving lingo, OMLTs are pronounced "omelets," which always conjures for me the image of NATO units cooking eggs for hardened Afghan fighters.)
6. General Petraeus's speech was telling. While the administration pushes ahead with its 60-day review of Afghanistan policy, Petraeus basically laid out exactly what he thinks that policy should be:
First and foremost, our forces and those of our Afghan partners have to strive to secure and serve the population. We have to recognize that the Afghan people are the decisive "terrain." And together withour Afghan partners, we have to work to provide the people security, to give them respect, to gain their support, and to facilitate the provision of basic services, the development of the Afghan Security Forces in the area, the promotion of local economic development, and the establishment of governance that includes links to the traditional leaders in society and is viewed as legitimate in the eyes of the people.
On a trip that left me more optimistic than I had been initially, one concern I take away is the tension that might emerge between Obama and Petraeus if the former wants to trim his sails and focus more on killing terrorists in Afghanistan while the latter wants to expand his efforts to foster population security. Not only would this be a tragic and detrimental outcome, it would be an ironic one: The general who Bush tapped in Iraq to jettison a losing counterterrorism approach in favor of a winning counterinsurgency strategy becoming the general who falls out of favor with Obama because he doesn't want to do the reverse in Afghanistan.
Like everything with Afghanistan, this scenario is far from certain, and let's hope it never comes to pass.
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.